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2020 in review: An aging father's anger in rural Japan goes beyond 37 degree 'limit'

This Feb. 9, 2020 photo shows a city in the northern part of Kyoto Prefecture. (The Mainichi/Manabu Niwata)

My 84-year-old father was unusually angry over the phone. My mother, 86, had been hospitalized since April for liver disease, was discharged in October and now going to live at a nursing home. But when she arrived at the facility, her temperature was apparently 37.5 degrees Celsius, so she was sent home. To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, there was a rule that she could not enter the facility if her temperature exceeded 37.0 C.

    When leaving the house, her temperature was 36.5 C. My father took her temperature again when she came back home -- 36.7 C.

    "Over 37 C at the entrance to the nursing home. But now it's under 37. This is a mistake. Come to my house and take my wife's temperature!" protested my father to the facility, but she was still unable to enter. His anger did not subside, so he called me and my younger brother, who live near Tokyo, and explained his struggle.

    My parents live in a mountainous area in the northern part of Kyoto Prefecture, where bears and vipers sometimes attack people, while my two brothers and I, like many young people, live in big cities.

    In my hometown this year, my friend's father was bitten by a poisonous snake and rushed to hospital. Another friend's father was injured by a bear, which made the news on TV.

    "Which is more dangerous, our hometown where bears and poisonous snakes attack, or Tokyo, where there are many coronavirus-infected people?" I joked in a message to friends from my hometown that live in the Tokyo area.

    We can see bears and snakes, but not the coronavirus. An invisible danger is scarier. If a cluster of infections were to occur in the small town where I grew up, the medical system would quickly collapse. I hesitated to go back, worrying that I could spread the virus to people there.

    In August, however, I eventually decided to go and see my father, who was living alone. Of course, the hospital banned visits, so I couldn't see my mother.

    Similar scenes no doubt played out all over the world in 2020 -- postponements of weddings, grandparents who could not hold their grandchildren, funerals attended only by family members. The new coronavirus has restricted our relationships.

    The first report on the new coronavirus in The Mainichi was on Jan. 4, 2020. The headline to the story, an Associated Press article out of Hong Kong, read, "Hong Kong steps up response to mystery disease from China." I thought it wouldn't be a big problem, but I also had a foreboding sense that the situation could be serious.

    I was a correspondent for the Mainichi Shimbun in Mexico City when, in 2009, a new type of influenza broke out in Mexico. At the time, we were wary of the outbreak turning into a highly lethal pandemic. My boss at Tokyo headquarters warned me on the phone, "If you don't leave Mexico right away, you'll die." My wife, living near Tokyo, begged me to "stop being a journalist and come back to Japan."

    But the new influenza in Mexico had a low fatality rate and was not much different from usual seasonal influenza strains. Having had this experience, I initially thought that the new coronavirus would not be too bad.

    COVID-19 has killed many people around the world. My father's anger and the fact that I hadn't seen my mother for 10 months pale in comparison to people's deaths.

    On the other hand, I believe a more horrifying pandemic that claims the lives of many children will hit humanity in the future. It may happen only a few years from now, or it may occur decades later. But it is certain that a new virus will appear again.

    Mankind has learned a lot from COVID-19. And we are still learning. We must use the lessons of 2020 to prepare for future pandemics. We must not forget that hand-washing and face masks are effective. Then mankind will defeat the virus.

    The word "vaccine" is said to derive from the Latin for "cow." In the Chinese zodiac used in Japan and other countries, 2021 corresponds to the year of the ox, or cow. I hope it will be a good year for humankind.

    (By Manabu Niwata, The Mainichi Editor-in-Chief)

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